ASPEN - The Aspen Election Commission began talks Wednesday that could lead to a full hand count - a 12- to 15-hour process, said City Clerk Kathryn Koch - of ballots if instant runoff voting (IRV) is retained in the Nov. 2 election.
In the last municipal election, the ballots and the electronic counting system used by the city were audited to test the functionality of the tabulation software. That test used 10 percent of the 2,544 ballots cast.
It didn't determine whether the final count was accurate, but it determined that the software that counted the ballots had accomplished its job.
City Attorney John Worcester said in Wednesday's commission meeting that the test didn't find any errors.
The discussion was spurred by several complaints that the city didn't follow through with promises to count 25 percent of the ballots for the May 2009 election.
Worcester and Jim True, the city's special legal counsel, said that promise was never made. They recommended that if IRV is kept, the test method used in the May election should also be kept, contending that a hand count is less accurate than a computer count.
The software the city used to count votes was a system patented by a private Maryland vote-tallying firm that the city hired; Aspen hired the company because the city didn't have the necessary technical capabilities.
The system was not certified by the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, as are most vote-counting processes.
The City Council has put a question on the November ballot that asks voters if they want to keep IRV or bring back the traditional runoff method the city used before 2009.
IRV allows citizens to rank the candidates in voters' order of preference. Each candidate gets a pile of ballots, and the candidate with the smallest pile is eliminated. The candidate ranked second on each of those ballots then receives those votes. That process is repeated until a candidate achieves a majority of at least 50 percent.
That process is currently done by computers. If the commission requires the official tally to be done by hand, the software would no longer be needed.
Several critics have said IRV is subject - more than other voting systems - to a mathematical phenomenon that can cause a person with less support than others to win the election. Rob Rite, the executive director of FairVote, the biggest proponent of IRV, has said that concept is a myth.
If IRV is repealed, the traditional runoff method would not require a full hand count of the ballots because they would be counted by the same machines Pitkin County uses to conduct its elections.
The election commission said it would decide a final procedure for auditing the election after the November vote.
The official count was discovered to be inaccurate by the Maryland company several weeks after the election, when it found that Mayor Mick Ireland had, in fact, gained more of the vote than was initially tabulated.
The discussion was part of a campaign by the commission to find ways to prevent a large number of alleged missteps, and possibly criminal behavior, by city officials during the May election. Those actions are outlined in three voluminous compilations of complaints filed with the city in May by election activists Marilyn Marks and Elizabeth Milias, of Aspen, and Harvie Branscomb of El Jebel.